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The Friendly Enemy Next Door

Why Governments Should Neither Collaborate With Nor Ban Professed Non-Violent Islamist Groups in the West

Nicolò Scremin

15 October 2019


When it comes to non-violent Islamists, one of the most recurring dilemmas among Western policymakers and security officials is whether or not governments should cooperate with seemingly non-violent Islamist groups in the fight against violent extremism. Essentially, there are two schools of thought: the “conveyor belt” school and the “firewall” school. Conveyor belt theorists insist that any partnership should be avoided. To them, non-violent Islamists are crucial enablers of terrorism and precursors to violence – for their incubated religiously-sanctioned intolerance would contribute to the justification of violent actions [1]. On the other hand, firewall proponents argue that the doctrines and ideology of violent and non-violent Islamists are radically different, and that the latter would be credible allies that may prevent otherwise vulnerable Muslims from descending down a path of terrorism [2].

The United Kingdom seems to be the best example to describe such a quandary. For some, not only should non-violent Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Hizb ut Tahir not be deemed as political threats, even if they promote intolerance and anti-democratic worldviews [3]; in truth, they are perceived as credible interlocutors who may help in addressing important domestic and international challenges [4]. For instance, reports by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) urge the British government to increasingly engage with the Muslim Brotherhood, claiming it may contribute to the development of concrete political reforms in North Africa and Middle East [5], creating channels for serious and sustained dialogue with existing mainstream Islamist organisations there [6]. Further, given that non-violent extremists often share certain core ideas with their violent counterparts, they are often believed to have a greater credibility among those individuals who are more at risk of falling pray to violent radicalisation [7]. For this reasons, a number of British security officials consider non-violent extremists to be more suitable partners in countering domestic violent extremism than genuine “moderate” Muslims [8].

The Muslim Contact Unit (MCU) is perhaps the most notable example of effective collaboration between police and non-violent Islamists. In the early 2000s, this unit of the London Metropolitan Police worked closely with the British branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to regain control of the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, which was ruled by a group of violent extremists linked to Al-Qaeda [9]. In the years that followed, the MCU built strong and effective partnerships with the Brixton Salafis, an openly anti-violence Islamist group juxtaposing London-based violent extremists meant to prevent radicalisation among vulnerable local young Muslims [10].

Yet, despite the ostensible success of these collaborations, various pundits have strongly warned against the establishment of such tactical alliances, claiming they may do more harm than good, especially in the long-term [11]. In this regard, there are two main reasons why state engagement with non-violent extremists should be avoided. First and foremost, official collaborations may allow Islamist groups who hold uncompromising theocratic worldviews to obtain more political influence and legitimacy within their respective communities [12]. This, in turn, may pose a twofold threat to liberal democracies: Not only may such partnerships whet the appetite of non-violent Islamists, allowing them to impose their demands on governments for their own political agendas [13]; in the long run, these partnerships could contribute to the legitimisation and creation of mainstream movements that could attract mass support [14], gain power through liberal elections, and “destroy democracy without a single shot being fired” [15].

The failure to recognise controversial intentions behind presumed non-violent Islamist groups is what makes proponents of state engagement worthy of criticism [16]. As Alex Schimd points out, violent and non-violent Islamists are two sides of the same coin [17]. They both share extremist versions of Islam that shun democracy and see the establishment of a sharia-based state as the solution to all the plagues affecting the global ummah [18]. The only difference between them lies in the strategy and tactics they adopt to advance their goals [19]. Whilst large insurgent organisations such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or the Taliban practice violence and terrorism in the name of jihad, movements professed to be non-violent, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut Tahir or Sharia4Belgium, “only” engage in political activism and missionary work [20]. However, it must be noticed that their decision to relinquish violence does not seem to be principled and absolute, but tends to be merely based on pragmatic and tactical considerations [21]. According to Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, there is indeed a strategic logic in choosing a non-violence path [22]. Liberal freedoms in democratic systems provide non-violent Islamists with freedom of manoeuvre, which is used to spread propaganda, recruit new members, and even perform street da’wa (proselytism) [23]. Moreover, as liberal states tend to perceive non-violent insurgents as less extreme than violent militants, even as they try to achieve the same goals [24], governments are more likely to take a positive attitude and accommodate the political demands of the former [25].

There is a second reason why liberal states should not officially engage with non-violent Islamist groups. While the claim that non-violent entities act as a “safety valve” against violent extremism is not proven, substantial anecdotal evidence suggests that they might actually contribute to the creation of a stable environment for violent radicalisation [26]. In fact, it is not uncommon for violent Islamists to have a history of non-violent extremism. As a recent study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on British jihadis reveals, nearly eight in ten militants (87/113) “had links to non-violent Islamism, whether by association with Islamist organisations or through connections to individuals who follow and spread extremist ideology” [27]. Analogously, a report published by the Centre for Social Cohesion indicates that approximately 15% of people arrested for terrorism-related offences in Great Britain in 2009 had links to al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group that advocates for the introduction of sharia law in the UK [28]. Finally, a study by Raffaello Pantucci shows that almost half of individuals who perpetrated Jihadi-related attacks in Great Britain or abroad have had some sort of contact with non-violent Islamist movements [29]. Certainly, not all individuals involved in these groups automatically make the transition into violence. But it should be acknowledged that for those who do, the intolerant Islamist ideology professed in these non-violent groups is likely to be an ideological antechamber to violent extremism [30].

More than that, seemingly non-violent Islamist movements have provided direct ties with violent groups [31]. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, members of al-Muhajiroun established training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, actively recruiting individuals who would travel to various theatres of jihad. Anjem Choudary, one of the co-founders of the group, boldly boasted that they were sending people from Britain to Chechnya to join jihad against the Russians [32]. More recently, an Islamist movement called Sharia4Belgium engaged in a massive mobilisation spree of aspiring Belgian jihadists on their way to Syria and Iraq [33].

To Ban or Not to Ban?

If some Western Islamist groups professing to be non-violent turn into real security threats, how should liberal democracies deal with them? Is the use of repressive measures such as bans a possible solution? Over the years, Western policymakers and security officials have been debating whether Islamist groups who do not openly advocate violence but reject democratic core values should be banned [34]. On the one hand, those who oppose bans claim that freedom of speech is absolute and, therefore, liberal governments should not police people’s political views, no matter how extreme, anti-democratic or despicable they are [35]. By contrast, others argue that Western states have the right to outlaw Islamist groups that spread ideas that undermine the democratic constitutional order [36]. Within this framework, the following paragraphs demonstrate why banning these groups may be legally problematic and potentially counterproductive.

To begin with, in countries where there is not a clear constitutional section against non-violent extremist groups, a ban is not always a feasible option [37]. Denmark attempting to outlaw Hizb ut-Tahrir is a sound example of such a paradox. According to article 78 of the Danish Constitution, a group can be dissolved by law only if there is sufficient evidence that the group itself — and not only single members — directly engages in or publicly advocates for violence as a method for achieving its goals [38]. Therefore, as a result of these legal restraints, Hizb ut-Tahrir could not be banned on two occasions (in 2004 and in 2008), even if there was proof that a number of its members embraced violence or joined violent insurgent organisations [39].

But even when these types of legal difficulties are bypassed, the implementation of a ban may prove ineffective and counterproductive [40]. First, bans could actually strengthen controversial non-violent groups’ status and legitimacy. For instance, proscribing an Islamist group that has publicised its commitment to non-violent action for no other reason than to combat its extreme political views could reinforce narratives of a morally corrupt West stifling dissenting voices within Muslim communities [41]. This, in turn, could increase alienation, political marginalisation, perceived Islamophobia, and resentment among Western Muslims, leading some of them to adopt more radical beliefs, supporting the group’s demands, or joining its ranks [42].

Second, banning could also result in a “boomerang effect”, pushing non-violent Islamist groups to adopt violent methods to achieve their goals - marking de facto a transition from non-violent to fully-fledged violent movements [43]. The reason for such an assumption stems from the fact that, as previously discussed, the choice of an Islamist groups to follow a seemingly non-violent path might simply be a matter of convenience and contextual factors [44]. This means that, with the right conditions, allegedly pacifist groups could even transform into violent organisations [45]. By affecting the leaders’ cost-benefit calculations, bans could force groups to opt for violent tactics.

And, arguably, the probability of a “boomerang effect” resulting from a ban is higher in a democratic context [46]. By providing political activists with a non-violent outlet through which to voice their needs and manifest themselves, liberal states are cynically exploited by non-violent Islamist movements to gain legitimacy, promote their political agendas, create consensus, and recruit new members [47]. But, when such groups are finally banned, they become isolated and vulnerable, like “fishes out of water rather than fishes in the sea” [48]. Within this framework, movements could be forced to become clandestine groups that see violence as the only alternative and low-cost means to draw attention to their political cause.

There are several examples in recent history that show how isolated groups have adopted violent tactics after being ignored or countered. For example, looking for recognition and aspiring to overthrow the apartheid government, the African National Congress’s turned from a non-violent protest movement to a genuine insurgent group which fully embraced armed struggle [49]. Similarly, the unwillingness of the Batista regime to engage in negotiations with the opposition forces created “a good deal of dissidence”, which, in turn, contributed to the Cuban Revolution [50]. During the 1960s and 1970s, the overreaction of the German government against the student protest movement prompted the escalation from non-violent confrontations to riots and acts of terrorism [51]. Finally, the Basque Nation and Liberty (ETA) constitutes a prime example of what can happen when a movement is not allowed to participate in the political process. While ETA has been fighting for the independence of the Basque Provinces from Spain since the 1950s, during the early stages of its existence the group “did not advocate armed struggle” [52]. It was only after the government’s refusal to negotiate with the group in 1966 that ETA activists decided to abandon their modus operandi and use violence to achieve political goals [53].

In light of this, until they openly advocate or make the transition into violence and terrorism, banning and isolating Islamist groups claiming to be non-violent could be a strategic mistake. Rather, in a keen attempt to reduce potential security threats, Western democracies should engage in “softer” and longer-term activities [54] - interacting with Muslim communities through non-faith-based forums, creating awareness, and developing more effective counter-narratives against Islamist fundamentalism [55].


1. See Bowen, Innes. Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam, London, Hurst, 2014; Phillips, Melanie. Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within, London: Gibson Square, 2006; Bartlett, Jamie, Jonathan Birdwell and Michael King. The Edge of Violence. Demos, 2010.
2. See Githens-Mazer, Jonathan, and Robert Lambert. “Quilliam on Prevent: the wrong diagnosis,” The Guardian, 19 October 2009; Githens-Mazer, Jonathan. “Mobilisation, recruitment, violence and the street. Radical violent takfiri Islamism in early twenty-first-century Britain.” in Eatwell, R. and Goodwin, M. J. (eds.) The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain, Oxon: Routledge, 2010; Githens-Mazer, Jonathan, and Robert Lambert. “Why conventional wisdom on radicalisation fails: The persistence of a failed discourse.” International Affairs 86 (2010): 889-901.
3. The reason behind British tolerance vis-à-vis non-violent extremism is rooted in its very core values. In fact, Anglo Saxons, confident of the robustness of their democratic institutions, believe that a certain degree of extremism can and must be tolerated within the society as long as it remains non-violent. (Neumann, Peter. “The trouble with radicalization.” International Affairs 89, n.4 (2013): 886).
4. Curtis, Mark. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, London, Serpent’s Tail, 2010.
5. Stacher, Joshua. “Brothers in Arms? Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.” The Progressive Policy Think Tank (IPPR), 2008.
6. Glennie, Alex. “Building Bridges, Not Walls: Engaging with political Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa.” The Progressive Policy Think Tank (IPPR), 2009: 6-7, 44-5.
7. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: 2.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid. p.4
10. Bartlett, Jamie, Jonathan Birdwell and Michael King. The Edge of Violence: 53.
11. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism:.4
12. Vermeulen, Floris, and Frank Bovenkerk. Engaging with Violent Islamic Extremism: 193-194.
13. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: 25.
14. In fact, as Mao’s protracted people's war has demonstrated, the survival and success of an insurgent movement relied on popular support. (Mackinlay, John. The Insurgent Arcipelago. London: Hurst & Co., 2009: 15-26)
15. Peter, Neumann, The trouble with radicalization: 887
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid. 24.
18. Vidino, Lorenzo. “Sharia4: From Confrontational Activism to Militancy.” Perspective on Terrorism 9, n.2 (2015): 5
19. Khalil, Lydia. “Al-Qa’ida and the Muslim Brotherhood: United by Strategy, Divided by Tactics.” Terrorism Monitor 4, n.6 (2006)
20. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: 18.
21. Ibid.
22. Stephan, Maria J., and Erica Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security 33, n.1 (2008): 9.
23. Vidino, Lorenzo. Sharia4: 10.
24. Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth. Why Civil Resistance Works: 9.
25. A comparative study on major violent and non-violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, found that the latter succeeded 53 percent of the time, compared to 26 percent success rate for armed struggles. (Ibid. 8)
26. Vidino, Lorenzo. Sharia4: 9.
27. “Research Findings: The Relationship Between Violent and Nonviolent Islamist Extremism.” Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, 7 June 2018.
28. “One in Seven UK Terror-related Convictions Linked to Islamist group Now reatening to Relaunch.” Centre for Social Cohesion, 1 June 2009.
29. Pantucci, Raffaello. We Love Death as You Love Life. London: Hurst, 2015.
30. As a recent study by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics indicates, membership or ties to non-violent Islamist groups can be associated with an individual's trajectory towards violence and terrorism.
31. Vidino, Lorenzo. Sharia4: 9.
32. Mulhall, Joe. “From Clowns to Contenders: e History and Development of al-Muhajiroun and its International Networks,” in Vidino, L., Sharia4: Straddling political activism and jihad in the West. Dubai: al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, 2015.
33. Vidino, Lorenzo. Sharia4: 10.
34. Ibid. 12
35. Neumann, Peter. The trouble with radicalization: 885
36. Vidino, Lorenzo. Sharia4: 12.
37. Ibid.
38. Sinclair, Kirstine and Saad Ali Khan, “Current Islamist and Jihadi-Sala Trends in Denmark: Hizb ut-Tahrir and Kaldet,” in Vidino, L., Sharia4: Straddling political activism and jihad in the West. Dubai: al Mesbar Studies and Research Centre, 2015.
39. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: 24.
40. A symbolic example in this direction is that of al-Muhajiroun spinoffs. In fact, British government has repeatedly banned groups associated with al-Muhajiroun since 2006. But after each proscription the activists of the banned group “simply continued their activities under a new name” (Mulhall, Joe. From Clowns to Contenders).
41. Cherney, Adrian. “Why Australia shouldn’t ban Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir.” The Conversation, 10 October, 2014.
42. Ibid.
43. It is important to bear in mind that also government repression of violent groups may have a backfire effect. For instance, the severe military repression by British army in Northern Ireland provided IRA — the Provisional Irish Republican Army — with a long-term strategic beneath, for it allows the group to increase the number of its supporters. (Stephan, Maria J., and Erica Chenoweth. “Why Civil Resistance Works”: 13-14).
44. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: 24.
45. Ibid.
46. For a more in-depth discussion on the boomerang effect, see: Ganor, Boaz. “Terrorist Organization Typologies and the Probability of a Boomerang Effect.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 3, n.4 (2008): 269-283.
47. Ganor, Boaz. Global Alert: The Rationality of Modern Islamist Terrorism and the Challenge to the Liberal Democratic World. Columbia University Press, 2015: 15.
48. Crenshow, Martha. “Theories of terrorism: Instrumental and organizational approaches.” Journal of Strategic Studies 10, n. 4 (1987): 13-31.
49. Landau, Paul, S. “The ANC, MK, and ‘The Turn to Violence’ (1960 1962).” South African Historical Journal 64, n. 3 (2012): 538-563.
50. Steinberg, Alan. “To Negotiate or Not to Negotiate, That is the Question: A Cost Analysis of a Non-Negotiation Policy.” Journal of Peace, Conflict & Development 21, March (2015): 89.
51. Whittaker, David J. Terrorism: Understanding the Global Threat. London: Longman, 2002: 49-51.
52. Asprey, Robert B. War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1994: 1142-1143.
53. Steinberg, Alan. To Negotiate or Not to Negotiate: 93.
54. Neumann, Peter. The trouble with radicalization: 886.
55. Schmid, Alex P,. Violent and Non-Violent Extremism: 24

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